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Book #68: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Here is my one word, highly academic, response to Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Wow.

Five years from now, if you ask me about some of the books I’ve read from the Time list, I’m sure there will be many that I’ve forgotten about. That’s what the blog is for—to help me remember.

But this is one of those novels that I won’t forget. Everything about Their Eyes Were Watching God is memorable—the story, the characters, the settings, the writing—oh, the writing.

Zora Neale Hurston’s writing is so ridiculously good, and the story itself is so strong, I wonder how this woman hasn’t been given more praise than she has. How did she not get “rediscovered” until the 1970s? What’s wrong with us?

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God, here’s a quick summary: The story follows the up and down adventures—mostly centered around her relationships with men–of Janie Crawford.

Janie is an attractive, African-American woman in the rural south, and she’s searching for her independence as a woman during that time. However, the men she marries and the communities she lives in—with their expectations of her as a woman—are some of the obstacles she encounters along the way.

Janie’s relationship issues highlight the tension between her pursuit to find herself and the expectations both the men and society have put on her.

On top of that, with each relationship, she becomes the center point of “porch gossip” in the towns she lives in. Because she’s almost always the most desirable woman in town, her every move is scrutinized. It’s a tough life being Janie Crawford.

A few passages from Their Eyes Were Watching God that describe Janie Crawford:

“She had waited all her life for something, and it had killed her when it found her.”

“Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”

“She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.”

“She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”

Janie finally finds what seems to be true love with a man who loves her as she is, rather than who he wants her to be. But you know how these things go. Classic novels can’t end all happy and positive, right? Rabies has to enter the picture at some point, right? Wait…rabies?

I’ll leave it at that, if you haven’t read the book.

The highlight of Their Eyes Were Watching God was, by far, the beauty of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing. She’s a Van Gogh, a Monet, with the pen or the typewriter or whatever it was she used to write. Again, tell me this isn’t a fabulous opening to a novel.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

And that style. She’s descriptive and philosophical and contemplative, all at the same time. It carries on throughout this novel.

Other than what I’ve read about ZNH in the last few weeks, I know very little about her. We’ve talked about her politics and how she changed African-American culture. She certainly was passionate in her views, but she doesn’t come across as preachy in this novel, and that seems like it would’ve been easy for her to do.

If I could travel back in time and have a beer with one author, that one author might be Zora Neale Hurston. She just seems so genuine and true to herself… and so freaking articulate.

That’s what makes her death all the more sad. This is a topic I’ll revisit on the blog soon, but basically Hurston died alone in a nursing home after falling into obscurity as a writer for years.

She was essentially forgotten until Alice Walker rediscovered her and then actually took the time to find her unmarked grave. Just think about that—Zora Neale Hurston had an unmarked grave! How messed up is that?

To wrap it up, this is a top 10 book for me…maybe higher. Check out my rankings to see where I placed it. At the moment, I’m not sure.

I would highly recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God to anyone.

Other Stuff

Opening Line: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

The Meaning: The title comes from the passage I outlined yesterday. “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” A group is huddled in an abandoned home, waiting out a hurricane, measuring “their puny might against [God’s].”

Highlights: Everything. The characters, especially Janie and Tea Cake, are lovable despite and, really, because of their flaws. Hurston just makes you feel at home in this novel, even if it’s from a time and a place that you’ve never been. Her writing is immaculate. She doesn’t preach even though you know she could if she chose to.

Lowlights: I don’t know that I have one. Rabies maybe?

Memorable Line: There’s just so many. But if I had to pick one I’ll go with this: ““If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all.”

Final Thoughts: I’ve praised this novel as much as I can. Their Eyes Were Watching God is an amazing novel. If you haven’t read it, go read it. Now!

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sounds like I most definitely need to go back and read this as an adult. Having it forced on us in high school really made me block out all of it. Seriously, all I remember is Lake Okeechobee.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
    • Amazing how high school English has that affect. I always “thought” I hated The Scarlet Letter until I reread it as an adult.

      Like

      March 5, 2014
      • Haahaa now that one I don’t know about. I’ve read other Hawthorne since I’ve grown up and I wasn’t impressed. I plan to go back and read those books from high school at some point and that one is included!

        Like

        March 5, 2014
  2. peachyperspectivve #

    This is one I will definitely add to my list. Why? Because it doesn’t sound totally depressing like most of these books.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
    • It’s the truth. The situations in the book are not always happy ones, but the emotional state of Janie at the end, when she feels like she finally knows her place in the universe–that is some powerful, life-affirming stuff.

      Like

      March 10, 2014
  3. Rabies is always a lowlight.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  4. I hated this book the first time I read it, but now it’s one of my favorites. The dialogue is a little confusing but helps you hear the characters’ voices once you get used to it.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  5. deweydecimalsbutler #

    I love love love this book, and it’s one that is also a joy to teach (not always the case), and I don’t think I’ve ever had a student not like this book. And you’re right, Hurston’s writing is beyond anything I can compare. My best phrase for her is that she writes in verse-prose. So glad you liked it. I wrote on it early on in my own blog because of how much I liked it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to take a look if you want. There are spoilers, though, for those who have yet to read it.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  6. One of my favorite books! And it only gets better the more I read it!

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  7. It’s on my list. Thank you. Hug.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  8. Awesome! On my list. Great Review!

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  9. Well said all around. Part of what Hurston celebrated and promoted as a cultural treasure was the beauty of all our mother tongues (those regional/cultural dialects of English we learned from our mothers/parents). For an African American during her life, celebration of a non-Standard American English was heresy, both to the dominant White culture and to African American leaders who were promoting their own legitimate agendas of proving intellectual equality through use of SAE (as a result of which they felt Hurston to be feeding stereotypes and hurting the civil rights cause as they were championing it.) Toni Morrison maybe has best carried that linguistic celebration forward through her novels. Contemporary rap and R&B music also works in this area, most ardently embraced by teenage often Caucasian culture. For many, modern language evolution in all its permutations is appalling or confusing. Certainly there is no small grain of bias in those reactions or a nostalgia for a fictitious time when language was stable and uniform. Hurston seemed to be a tough cookie against her critics. She moved forward with dignity, saying it best perhaps in her famous lines “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” She would definitely be one with whom hoisting a few brews would have been excellent.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  10. It will be on my list of “to read SOON”. Thank you for that well-written and amazing review.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  11. Great review. One of the bonuses of reading a great writing is our writing improves.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  12. A most excellent review. I love her writing.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  13. And this is why Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my favorite books of all time. It is, quite simply, marvelous.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
  14. Love this book – and to be honest, I think the rabies might have been my favorite part. It was the poetic irony of the tragedy, I think. Either that, or I just think it would be funny if “rabies” became one of your most popular tags.

    Like

    March 5, 2014
    • Yes, the rabies is just so unexpected. Out of everything that happens to them…and rabies?

      Like

      March 12, 2014
  15. I’m convinced. I’m going to have to read this book as well.

    Like

    March 6, 2014
  16. This is one of my favorites. First read it in High School, but did not get to appreciate it until read it in College.

    Like

    March 6, 2014
  17. Couldn’t agree more. This novel had such an impact on me when I first read it – it is so packed with beauty, lyricism, human pain, and hope.

    Like

    March 8, 2014
  18. yourgirlsbf #

    Her writing is absolutely breathtaking, I’ll definitely be checking this out in the summertime. Thank you so much for sharing such beautiful pieces of work, you’re doing so many people a wonderful favour. I wanted to send this to you in a personal message but I’m not sure how, so my apologies ahead of time: I think there may be a minor typo in one of your sentences, “A group is huddle <—- (did you mean "huddleD"??) in an abandoned home, waiting out a hurricane, measuring “their puny might against [God’s].”"

    Cheers!

    Like

    March 11, 2014
    • Yep! Fixed it. Her writing is breathtaking, isn’t it?

      Like

      March 12, 2014
  19. i hated that book. then again, i had to read it for school

    Like

    March 19, 2014

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